"Pioneer" states the headstone for George Pierce Billings. And below it the notation: "held the plow that turned the first furrow in Utah."
Billings was born July 25, 1827, died on a date now too blurry to read in 1896 and was buried in the Manti cemetery. Think what just that little bit reveals about this man: he came with the first company of pioneers as a young man of 20, later moved to this area, probably was around long enough to see his home become a state, lived a fairly long life for his times.Look around and there are a few more clues. Nearby is a monument "in sacred memory" to Neona, daughter of Titus and Emma Billings, surely relatives of George. She was born June 13, 1878, and died Feb 24, 1879. And next to it one for Emma Billings, another daughter of Titus and Emma, who lived less than two years, from July 24, 1886, to Jan. 19, 1888. "Dearest loved one," her stone reads, "we have laid thee In the peaceful grave's embrace. But thy memory will be cherished Till we see thy heavenly face."
Here then in this one little corner of the Manti cemetery is a lesson in what it means to be a pioneer: breaking new ground, staying the course, burying children and grandchildren much too soon, being sustained by undying faith.
Similar lessons about life can be found in other corners of this cemetery and in every other cemetery throughout the state. Cemeteries contain so much more than you might think, said Tania Tully of the Utah State Historical Society. A lot of history is there as well.
"Cemeteries are a physical link to our past," she said. They reveal cultural trends, record hardship and trial, show migration patterns, provide evidence of faith and belief. Mostly they tell about people: records of their deaths and stories of their lives.
Unfortunately, said Tully, in many of Utah's cemeteries "that link to the past is deteriorating as cemetery records and grave markers suffer the effects of time."
That has prompted the Historical Society to launch an ambitious project to locate all of the state's cemeteries and create a computerized database of plots and burials. Working with city officials, volunteers and other local interest groups, they are hoping to compile a standardized list that will contain names and burial locations for all of Utah's cemeteries. "Local communities and nonprofit organizations play a vital role in the collection of data," said Tully, "and we have matching grants available to help them." With that money, communities can transfer cemetery records from their own books, card files and maps to a Geographical Information System, which links computer maps with databases.
The project will have many benefits, said Tully. For one thing, she said, planners, developers, local governments and land managers will be able to know literally "where the bodies are buried," and thereby avoid potential conflicts. "Small, abandoned cemeteries have been particularly troublesome in this regard," she said. Second, the Historical Society hopes they can help improve cemetery management by upgrading cemetery records and the system for tracking future burials.
And, of course, said Tully, "genealogists and historians will appreciate the easy access, via the Internet, to the database. It will be especially valuable in their research." Eventually, she said, people with access to the Internet will be able to just type in a name and find out exactly where that person is buried.
The first phase of the project involves a survey of all the cemeteries in the state. A big part of the challenge is finding all of the small and abandoned plots that are scattered about. Many of them started as family burial plots or were located in small outpost settlements that didn't last.
"There are quite a lot of them out there," said Tully. "We keep getting calls all the time."
If you drive along U.S. 89 through Piute County, for example, you come across a burial plot at the side of the road about seven miles outside of Circleville. Surrounded by nothing but sagebrush is a small collection of graves from the early part of this century: Charles Harris, buried in 1916; Leo Vern, 1914; Mary Ann P. Cook, 1919; Alva DelRoy Harris, 1919; Elizabeth A. Harris, 1935. What's the story here? So far, the Historical Society has no records. "These are the hard ones," said Tully. "We have to depend on someone calling and telling us what they know."
The initial survey phase of the project is about 70 percent completed, she estimates. "So far, we know about roughly 400 different cemeteries throughout the state."
Once the cemeteries are located, the next step is to complete a comprehensive mapping of the burial ground to get as much information as possible. So far, said Tully, more than 250 cemeteries have been surveyed, involving hundreds of thousands of burials. And about 40 communities are currently participating in the grants project.
Surveying a cemetery can offer challenges all its own.
Dixie Brunger has about 7,500 entries so far in her work at the Mt. Pleasant burial ground, "and I'm not near finished."
One of the problems, she said, is that the first settlers came to Mt. Pleasant in the 1860s. But the first cemetery records didn't start until 1876. And even then many were written in broken Danish because so many of the early settlers came from Denmark. "I've had to brush up on my Danish."
Even after 1900, she said, record-keepers wrote down the name but not the place of burial. "With my grandmother, they wrote that she was a member of the LDS Church, that she had a pale complexion, how tall she was and that she was laid to rest in an orchid coffin. But they didn't put the location where she was buried." Brunger knew that one, but for many of the others, she has had to go up and down the rows trying to match cemetery records, family records that people have brought in and other information.
That was also a problem Steve Atkin encountered in his survey of the Beaver cemetery. This burial ground also goes back nearly 150 years, and a lot of the early graves were marked with old wooden markers that are long gone. "We have about 440 names on our records that we don't have any idea where they are buried." They are posting a list, he said, and hope that when some of the families come for Memorial Day they might offer some help.
But overall, it's been a very good project for the city, said Atkin.
For the first time, he said, they now have a complete map that they can hang up for visitors to use as a reference. "We always have people asking about where someone is buried."
In all the Beaver cemetery has about 4,500 burials, and they reveal a lot about the early days of the city.
Dixie Brunger, too, has found that you get a taste of history and the people by wandering through the cemetery. "For one thing," she said, "you see how hard it was to be a woman, to have a baby in those days." You see the destructive power of epidemics. "We have whole families who were wiped out in one week by diphtheria."
And, she said, it not only helps you understand the precious nature of life, but to feel better about the hardships that you face. "When you see how some of these people kept going, you feel you can't give up when things get tough."
That's a lesson about what it means to be human that can be learned in a cemetery. As is this one, etched on the Mt. Pleasant stone of Soren Jacobsen: "Remember friends as you pass by, That all mankind are born to die. Then let your cares on Christ be cast, That you may dwell with Him at last."